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Last week, I wrote about why law firms continue to find it hard to embrace legal matter management. If you haven’t read it, you can do so here.

Imagine a law firm dashboard that outlined all of your project investments. It would include legal matters, e-discovery, pending client engagements, and your IT, marketing, office relocation and strategic planning projects. Consider how your firm might evolve if you actually had reliable backlog data forecasts for each lawyer and paralegal. How could you better distribute work if you actually knew who was busy, and who was not? How might you assign or outsource work to reduce costs if your teams were fully accountable to your clients on a month-to-month basis? Would you be more transparent with your clients about where things stood?

Now, if you are the client, imagine that same dashboard in your company. Suppose you could track all of your project investments, including a large strategic planning effort, the opening of a new office in Guam, your marketing and advertising ventures, a massive rewriting of your HR policies, a gazillion technology projects, and your legal spending? Could you better insure that your projects are aligned to your corporate strategy? What steps might you take to better control costs? How would you manage your resources better? How might you better communicate with your outside counsel?

Law firms today face increasing competitive pressures, changing technologies, and emerging outsourcing opportunities. Just last week, David Howard, Deputy General counsel of Microsoft, announced that it wants alternative fee arrangements (AFA) on 90% of its work. An increasing use of AFAs requires law firms to manage their matters in a way that the billable hour model does not. Effectively responding to these challenges requires law firms to have better data metrics than they have captured in the past.

In last week’s blog, I explained why the data metrics on a legal matter, managed in Microsoft’s own Project software, are badly flawed. We need a better way. I challenge the leadership at Microsoft to meet me at the table. In the meantime, this blog will offer readers some suggestions on how to improve legal matter management. A smart start is critical for a successful finish.

Take some lessons from the project management concept of a charter.

The lawyers I know are pretty good about getting an engagement letter from their clients. But engagement letters can often be pretty vague, for good reasons. A project charter is used in many businesses to announce a new project. It’s a document that outlines the basics of the project. It asks the people in the organization to support the named project manager.

Engagement letters can often be pretty vague, consider creating a project charter that outlines the… Click To Tweet

The sooner you fully understand the scope inclusions AND exclusions, the better. Document the details, including your assumptions and constraints, where you and your client can refer to them. If you don’t know much about project charters, you can read about some essentials here.

This is the time to really get to know the client and everyone on the client’s team. Are costs more important than schedule? Are there some hot button issues? Who is the senior decision-maker, and how much authority does he/she have? How often does the client want to meet and discuss progress? Write it all down.

When project leaders get started on a new project, one of the early tasks is to determine which people will be working on the project. I like to refer to this group as the implementation team. Determine who will be on this team, and think about that group as a team, with accountability to each other, and to the client.

Don’t start by listing out every activity.

Microsoft Project is one of the leading project tools on the market. Many lawyers who know project management have learned much of what they know from using Project. The problem with Project is that the focus is on scheduling activities, which should come later. Time spent mapping out every detail too early in a legal matter is just, too often, a fool’s errand.

Time spent mapping out every detail too early in a legal matter is just, too often, a fool’s errand. Click To Tweet

Focus on the essential activities needed to accomplish the scope.

I recommend that teams break down the legal matter into essential activities that need to be done to accomplish the scope of work. I don’t recommend that they list out every single brief, deposition, filing, or research question that needs to be addressed. There is simply too much that can change.

But, if you break it down enough to be able to estimate a budget for each activity, you will have something that you can work towards. If your activity is witness depositions, you need to know whether you’re going to take two depositions, or ten depositions. Will you need to defend another ten depositions? You don’t have to know every detail – and even if you think you do, you are likely wrong. So, why spend time on something that is just going to have to be re-worked later? The key here is to document your assumptions, preferably in a software solution that your client can access.

When you break the project down into these essential activities, clearly define the value that you will deliver to the client. Project managers use the term deliverable. That’s not a word that a lot of lawyers use for their work. It’s important that you define what done looks like for each activity, and that you and your client agree. If you are new to the concept of breaking down projects, you can read about that here.

Again, I am talking about the activities – not the tasks. If you try to get the kind of precision that I’m talking about here (and in the next section) for every single task, you will drive your client, and everyone else, crazy.

As the project becomes more defined, you will need to document more and more tasks. The problem with the traditional approach is that adding activities after a schedule has been created is time consuming and frustrating. It is easier to think of the big activities and the little tasks separately, and to have a way to add tasks easily and mark them done quickly. Adding activities is a change in scope, and needs to be addressed through a change management process, which I will cover next week.

Identify quality objectives and how they will be tested for each essential activity.

Lawyers are usually pretty good at delivering quality work. The question is whether your client can afford it. High quality on every activity can add up. You need to document the quality objective for each essential activity. How are you going to measure the quality? Which person on your team is going to do that? Who will approve the testing results? This is particularly true for work that you plan to outsource. There may be legitimate places to cut corners and save your client some bucks without compromising the matter.

Over the years, the courts have taken steps to control litigation costs by restricting, for example, the numbers of depositions or interrogatories. There are likely still times when a conscientious team can come up with other ideas. For example, does your client want to pay for a lawyer to travel across the country to depose a witness, or use some kind of video chat software? Can you limit the number of people who need to read, provide input on, and approve each successive draft of an M&A prospectus? What steps should you outsource to lower cost service providers? The key is to discuss these ideas with your client, and to document the decisions.

Project managers are taught to build quality into their processes – to plan ahead for what kind of quality is needed. Thinking about the quality needed on documents drafted by humans won’t feel quite the same as measuring machine defects, but you can think ahead about quality.

Distinguish between knowledge managers and project managers.

Legal matters, like many projects, evolve in ways that require oversight and guidance. This guidance comes from decision-makers with creative, intelligent minds, knowledge of the client’s needs, the project risks, and the law (and perhaps some other disciplines). These projects also require oversight and guidance from someone who can manage a ton of administrative details. It’s time to split out the work of the knowledge manager from that of the project manager. Don’t get bogged down in these titles. It doesn’t really matter what you name these roles.

Let the project manager be in charge of documenting details, putting together budget reports, organizing meetings, reviewing work flows, and following up on problems. Let the knowledge manager be in charge of how the legal questions are addressed. Typically, the knowledge manager is the lead contact with the client.

The relationship between the knowledge manager and project manager is a closely choreographed dance with both parties participating in a way that plays to their strengths. The cost of having a seasoned lawyer do administrative work is outrageous. And, any large matter or big project has a lot of administrative details – like it or not. Plus, remember when I said that lawyers want to practice law?

Have your implementation team price the matter, and be accountable for the budget.

There continues to be conversation about using pricing partners to price new matters. I agree that the use of pricing experts is quite valuable when you are pricing resources that need to be acquired on the open market. A pricing expert, knowledgeable about construction costs knows the costs of concrete, steel, windows, and wiring. But, what we are pricing here is the work of a variety of lawyers who all have different strengths, weaknesses, and areas of expertise.

I’m not saying that someone with pricing expertise can’t add value to the conversation. That’s where your knowledge manager, and the senior lawyers on the implementation team can be quite valuable. And, engaging the entire team has several benefits:

  • It encourages teams to be accountable to the final budget, work according to the quality defined with the client, and to manage their own time.
  • It builds knowledge in younger lawyers and administrative personnel.
  • Generally speaking, greater perspective and better understanding of the many factors that impact price will improve your estimates.

If you are struggling to develop consensus on budget line items, there are many techniques that the Scrum community has been developing for years. And, I’ve written before on conversations that teams should have when estimating complex projects, here.

Focus on getting a commitment to results over a commitment to schedules.

Get the people who have agreed to be responsible for certain activities to commit to doing what was defined as done. That means they need to understand the activity, and what done means. They should commit to producing the work at the desired level of quality and within the budget that has been allocated. This doesn’t mean that teams never exceed their budgets. It means that they are focused on understanding what is going on. And, that they can communicate with the client when the apple cart gets upended – and it will! Lawyers can’t predict the unpredictable, but they can be focused on delivering value regularly, and communicating with the client.

Time spent creating and managing an elaborate schedule is time that cannot be spent producing real work on the project. However, you still need to understand where your critical deadlines are. Not all deadlines are equal. Meeting a briefing schedule imposed by a judge is different from the team-imposed deadline for a draft pleading.

I like the idea of designating deadlines as either fixed or target. Target deadlines can be used to simply keep a project moving forward. There are some people who are more motivated by deadlines. Thus, assigning a target deadline gives them something to work towards. Fixed deadlines simply cannot be missed. There is no acceptable excuse, so they should be used sparingly. You don’t want so many deadlines on your project that you lose sight of what is important.

You don’t want so many deadlines on your project that you lose sight of what is important. Click To Tweet

Have a plan for managing the project details.

Trained project managers are taught to manage costs, schedule, risks, issues, procurement contract requirements, lessons learned, scope, changes, and a host of other details. But most project management tools, including Microsoft Project, stop short on many of these details. You can use an Excel or Google spreadsheet. You just need to manage all of your project details.

Do you think these suggestions might help you improve legal matter management? Next week, I’ll give you some ideas on how to bring agility to your project execution.